Everyone is attempting to adjust to the results of this election differently. Those who have been marginalized for whatever reason — sex, color, orientation, etc. — are reacting in fear for what might happen with Trump (even though he is not yet in power, and won’t be in power until January). Those who have crawled out of the shadows and the gutters, emboldened by the man, have taken to harassing and abusing those marginalized (even though the laws have not changed, and likely will not change, making what they are doing illegal). Some, like me, who have been fortunate enough (dare I say privileged, which I do recognize) have been coping by hoping for rationality — believing (perhaps unrealistically) and hoping that the weight of the Presidency will change the campaign demagogue into a reasoned man concerned with his legacy, suitably constrained by our Constitution, the opposition Democrats, and our system.
We all have been taking to the streets and social media. Social media has done its job: amplifying the small fringe voices and actions so that they feel like a national groundswell; amplifying the resulting fears to make everyone more fearful; echoing those who have the same fear while hiding the reasoned voices on both sides. The reasoned people who supported Trump more to blow up the system rather than to support his behavior see only the riots and vandalism in response to his election, not the fear. Those who support Clinton only see the fear and the hate response. And it magnifies, like a mirror looking into a mirror, reflecting on and on forever deeply, even though we’re really only talking about perhaps a quarter-inch of glass.
And those who operate the social media — the Mark Zuckerbergs, the folks behind Twitter, etc. — where are they in all of this? Silent. They are silently allowing the echo chambers they created – and the algorithms they curated — to spread the fake news, to spread the parodies, to spread the words that amplify and isolate. They are not taking responsibility; they are not helping to heal. When we look back at this election, we’ll see much of the ultimate blame belongs with the Internet and Social Media for building up the hate and fear between both sides. For those us on the Clinton side, ask yourself: where would we be if Trump had been unable to tweet, but could only go through the news media, if we weren’t seeing the fear-mongering fake news on FB, if we weren’t seeing the parodies and believing them real. For the Trump supporters, the same question: how might your picture of Clinton differ without FB spreading the stories, and Wikileaks being enabled to spread overly sensationalized innuendo?
Those of us who were there in the founding days of the Internet: What have we wrought?
Shortly before the election, Vox ran an article about how the Internet is harming our democracy. I saved it planning to post and comment upon it the day after the election. The election occurred, and other reactions came first. But the article remained, and deserves to be heard. The article talks about the impact of fake news on the election; about how Facebook considers itself to be a technology company, not part of the media. Quoting from the article:
But that’s wrong. Facebook makes billions of editorial decisions every day. And often they are bad editorial decisions — steering people to sensational, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate stories. The fact that these decisions are being made by algorithms rather than human editors doesn’t make Facebook any less responsible for the harmful effect on its users and the broader society.
Further on, the article notes:
Facebook hasn’t told the public very much about how its algorithm works. But we know that one of the company’s top priorities for the news feed is “engagement.” The company tries to choose posts that people are likely to read, like, and share with their friends. Which, they hope, will induce people to return to the site over and over again.
This would be a reasonable way to do things if Facebook were just a way of finding your friends’ cutest baby pictures. But it’s more troubling as a way of choosing the news stories people read. Essentially, Facebook is using the same criteria as a supermarket tabloid: giving people the most attention-grabbing headlines without worrying about whether articles are fair, accurate, or important.
Post election, this algorithm is showing us the fear and the attacks because that is what our friends are sharing. It isn’t showing us the reasoned voices. It is isolating us, and not allowing us to confront the hate directly online. We’ve defriended the other side long ago. And so it magnifies. The following excerpt from the article points out why things feel so bad now:
This dynamic helps to explain why the 2016 election has taken on such an apocalyptic tone. Partisans on each side have been fed a steady diet of stories about the outrages perpetrated by the other side’s presidential candidate. Some of these stories are accurate. Others are exaggerated or wholly made up. But less sophisticated readers have no good way to tell the difference, and in the aggregate they’ve provided a distorted view of the election, convincing millions of voters on each side that the other candidate represents an existential threat to the Republic.
And now that that existential threat has been elected, look at the reaction. Facebook built that fear, folks. Facebook elected this man, folks. One in five people — that’s 20% — say that they changed their vote because of social media:
In a recent survey of 4,579 Americans, Pew found that most people who are exposed to political content across their social media feeds react negatively to it. Nearly 40 percent of respondents described themselves as “worn out” by political debates on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and 80 percent of respondents said that when they see political posts they disagree with, they usually choose to ignore them. Meanwhile, 40 percent reported blocking or filtering political content and/or fellow users who posted political content on their feeds; the vast majority said it was because they felt the content was “offensive.”
But that doesn’t mean said political content has no measurable effect on Election Day. In Pew’s study, 20 percent of respondents admitted that they had changed their minds about a political issue or candidate after seeing the issue or candidate discussed on social media.
Think now about all how all those stories about Hillary and her email server, about how Hillary was dishonest, changed minds about Hillary. I heard an NPR story last night about how Democrats were voting in large numbers for Trump because they didn’t trust Hillary. It was social media that built that distrust. It is also social media that permitted the White Power groups and other haters to be heard in much larger numbers than they actually are. Combine this with the fact that even a single percentage point difference in each state — one in one hundred shifting from Trump to Clinton — could have given the election to Clinton instead of Trump:
Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida flip back to Clinton, giving her a total of 307 electoral votes. And she’d have won the popular vote by 3 to 4 percentage points, right where the final national polls had the race and in line with Obama’s margin of victory in 2012.
NPR asks: Did Social Media ruin this election? They note:
This is our present political social life: We don’t just create political strife for ourselves; we seem to revel in it.
When we look back on the role that sites like Twitter, Facebook (and Instagram and Snapchat and all the others) have played in our national political discourse this election season, it would be easy to spend most of our time examining Donald Trump’s effect on these media, particularly Twitter. It’s been well-documented; Trump may very well have the most combative online presence of any candidate for president in modern history.
But underneath that glaring and obvious conclusion, there’s a deeper story about how the very DNA of social media platforms and the way people use them has trickled up through our political discourse and affected all of us, almost forcing us to wallow in the divisive waters of our online conversation. And it all may have helped make Election 2016 one of the most unbearable ever.
We need to realize the impact of social media on this election. We need to realize that the hate voices we are hearing are an overly magnified and emboldened fringe. We need to realize that our fear and loathing of the President-elect — and indeed, much of his behavior and excesses — have been magnified through social media. It will continue to magnify, until we make the decision to stop letting it do so.
We need to take action. We need to speak up for the majority, not amplify the fears and behaviors of the minority. Remember the following:
- Gay marriage has overwhelming support nationwide — 55 percent to 37 percent against.
- Legal abortion is favored by 56 percent, with 41 percent opposed.
- The vast majority of the population supports background checks for gun buyers — up to 90 percent in some polls.
- A majority of Americans support some kind of universal health care, 58 percent to 37 percent.
- 64 percent of Americans are worried about global warming. Only 36 percent are not.
- And — get this — Americans overwhelmingly agree that immigration helps the country more than it hurts, by a 59 percent to 33 percent margin.
Get away from the fear. Step away from the keyboard before you share that article about yet another hate attack. Use the amplifying power of Facebook not to share hate, but to share hope. Speak up and say: THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
It is not acceptable, because Trump campaigned so as to amplify hate, to take that hate out on others in society.
It is not acceptable, out of your fear of and in protest of Trump’s election, to vandalize and destroy.
It is not acceptable to lose faith in our American system, to believe that its checks and balances and restrictions will not serve to temper the behavior of our Chief Executive. It limited Obama, and it will limit Trump.
We are the best of America. We need to show it. We must remember the words of Franklin Roosevelt — the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
One Reply to “Fear (fear ear) and the Echo (echo cho) Chamber”
The Internet is a tool. It makes no more sense to blame the Internet for this election than it does to blame cars for accidental deaths. It’s the human operators who need to be more careful.
Why do people think that what they read on the Internet is any more reliable than what they hear some random person at a bar say? The message of this election shouldn’t be “Internet is bad” (even if Facebook is); it should be “be careful out there”.
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